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Tug of war: Brown Women and the Feat of Marriage

8 min read

A few weeks ago, during a regular dinner with my parents, I casually remarked that I’m about to turn 22 soon. That’s the same age at which my mother married my father. It had been playing on my mind for some time, not because I suddenly felt like I needed to get married soon, but because it seemed unfathomable to me that my mother got married at that age. My mother, to my surprise, shared that same sentiment. She couldn’t imagine me getting married right now, or at least for a few years. It sparked a fascinating conversation between us. In her words, I am too young and not established or independent enough right now for marriage. I asked her if she thought she was too young when she got married. She said yes, but at the time, it felt like the right decision.

My parents had a love marriage; she was never pressured to marry my father. 

“When I told my father I wanted to get married to this man, he told me that I should either marry within 6 months of getting engaged or not get engaged at all. He was more concerned, due to our courtship being long-distance, that I might find somebody else, and then breaking off the engagement would be more of a hassle than not getting engaged at all.”

Marriage is a bottomless rabbit hole for brown women. It’s ingrained in our culture. Marriage is almost non-negotiable. It’s very standard for brown girls, when young, to see marriage as an inevitability, and probably before we turn 30. Some of us look forward to it, while the rest try to prolong it as much as possible. So, only two questions remain: When will we get married, and will it be arranged or not?

When I was young, marriage was never a real thing for me. There’s a video of me at a very young age proudly declaring, “I will never get married!” that my parents like to tease me with, saying they’ll play it at my actual wedding. When I spoke to a few women my age for this article, nearly all of them echoed this. At some point, though, over the last few years, “if” turned into “when” — I’ve almost accepted the fact that marriage will definitely be a commitment I will need to make when I get older. It’s not precisely abject resignation, just a given like brushing your teeth in the morning or knowing that you’ll eventually have to graduate from college and get a job to build a career for yourself.

I have realized, though, that age is still something I’m undecided on. The first person I discussed this with was my mother. If not rushed, her marriage story was interesting: They met in July of 1995 when my dad was in Delhi on a work trip for NIIT. They met at the office, went out a few times with some colleagues, and built a “friendship” (as she likes to call it) over mailing cards and letters to each other between Delhi and Bombay. At some point, they exchanged numbers. He then ghosted her for two months, and she called him to break the silence on New Year’s Day 1996. 

“I was stupid to call him back again after that,” she laughed, “but we were discussing marriage over the phone because one of his friends had just gotten married, and I asked him when he was planning on getting married. He replied with ‘you tell me.’” 

The first time I heard that story, I was pretty shocked. I couldn’t think of a single friend of mine who would accept such a horrible proposal. 

[Read more: I’m 24 Years old, and I Don’t Want to get Married Right Now]

“This was back in January or February, then he came to Delhi on 29th of April after switching jobs and proposed to me formally. And I said yes and told my parents. We got formally engaged in July and married in December.” 

What stood out to me the most from her story was that they knew each other for just under a year before my father proposed when he was 23 and my mother 21. She turned 22 just a month before their formal engagement — six months before her marriage ceremony. I asked her if a year is enough to know if you want to marry someone. 

“I feel like even 5 years isn’t enough to know someone, especially if you aren’t living together. I have friends who courted for 7 years but divorced 4-5 years into marriage. Other friends courted for 10 years and are still married, but they aren’t as compatible anymore.”

Longevity and time plague brown women today as well. For those of us whose parents are amenable to the idea of dating, we’re constantly thinking about what happens once a relationship becomes serious. The concept of an end goal to a relationship being marriage is a constant thought at the back of our minds. When do you introduce them to your family? At what point can you say with certainty that if this is the person I have to spend the rest of my life with, I would be okay with that?

One of the few people I spoke with while navigating these questions was a friend from high school. Prachee Mashru is a 21-year-old media student based in London who’s just finishing up her undergraduate university journey. Like me, she’s often wondered about how her marriage will play out. 

Unlike me, she’d prefer to be married sooner rather than later. “I’d see myself getting engaged by 24,” she says with enough conviction that I’m sure she’ll make it happen. “My parents know that I want to get married by 25 so they aren’t worried. If I hadn’t thought this, they’d begin looking for a partner for me in about 2 years. I’m almost done with my degree, so now my parents tell me to start looking for someone, so I can be with them for a while.”

While love marriages pick up steam in the desi community, arranged marriages are still not a foreign concept. With increased female independence and upward mobility, falling in love becomes a number’s game. 

According to my mother, “arranged marriages were more common before because women weren’t working much, so they weren’t meeting as many people.” All of us know of at least one arranged marriage story, to the point that we know it’s a certainty if our families are the type to expect marriage by a certain age. However, a common misconception to this day is that arranged marriage is a process where nobody has any choice, especially the women. That, in some communities (but not enough), is changing.

Asees Chadha is a 28-year-old dancer and choreographer based in Delhi navigating the arranged marriage landscape. “I used to feel that I will have an arranged marriage or whatever, then I realized that even if I have an arranged marriage, I won’t do it without a long enough courtship to genuinely get to know the person.”

Prachee’s sister, who’s 29, is in the same boat. Her sister tells her she “gets these filtered guys that will apparently fit her lifestyle. All of these things are already pre-approved.” Asees echoes the same sentiment, “arranged marriage helps chalk off certain things. It gives me some security because I know my family would have taken care of certain things already.” 

The aspect of looking for partners through the arranged marriage system seems simple on paper. It’s basically like a dating app: You set certain filters and then go through profiles to see which ones you like. If both sides swipe right, a conversation begins. Unfortunately, that’s when the problems come up.

As a professional dancer, Asees has been told by people that her “videos will become a red flag.” When I asked her what she thinks that might be, she said, “to them, I’m too bold. They think women like me can’t adjust. They think a woman who’s out there, bold, showing her body through dance— they don’t want those women in their family because apparently, she brings them a bad name.” 

“Achhi gharon ki ladkiyaan aise nahi karti hai,” (girls from good families don’t do these things) she concludes, in a justifiably mocking tone. 

Of course, despite the taunts and comments, she hasn’t stopped. Nor has she ever been pressured to do so; her family is as supportive as ever. They make it clear to every potential rishta that dancing is non-negotiable; she will never quit. That doesn’t make her inflexible — she unapologetically asserts the right to stick with her career. Nor should it be revolutionary for “the right man” to “accept” it; Asees wants embracement — an understanding that her career is not something to be tolerated but celebrated.

All of this is to say that the arranged marriage process is still not, and never will be, perfect. There still exists an almost patriarchal expectation of wanting the women to drop their lifestyles or careers to be acceptable within many families. The concepts of “adjustment” and “compromise” in arranged settings — words heard by literally every single brown woman at some point in their lives — skew very heavily against women. In arranged marriages, the onus of adjustment tends to fall more heavily on them than the men because, simply, brown society still expects a woman to get used to her husband’s life, but not quite the opposite.

How do we break out of this? I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be a single formula that fits all women. Having married young and had a child at 25, my mother gave up the nascent years of her career to raise her daughter. In turn, my father traveled and grew in his career much faster as he knew she would be at home to manage everything. She doesn’t regret a thing.

[Read more: The Difficulties of Secretive Dating During the Pandemic]

At the same time, my father’s first cousin, who is around the same age as my mother, is unmarried yet super independent. She has her family home from her parents and is financially stable. The only reason she isn’t married right now was that she wasn’t able to find someone who would adjust to her lifestyle.

Is there any middle ground? Is there a perfect age where you can have the ideal amount of success, personal independence and freedom while still being completely ready to merge your life with someone else to where both of you are pouring enough into the partnership?

In my conversation with Prachee, she said, “the way my mom always described marriage to me has a partner who always supports you through every decision you make. That’s why I want to marry young because I want that support system so that I’m not alone. I’d rather be with someone I can always come back to, especially in terms of living in a different city. Once I have a partner, we can start a life together.”

The idea of building together is one I find very common in many desi discussions about marriage, especially as a concept passed down through generations. My mother discusses marriage in similar terms, and that’s how I’ve come to see it as well. Asees echoes the same sentiment, “I want to be married. I want a human being who I can love and loves me back; we depend on each other and build a life together. Growth is so important.”

As I close in on my 22nd birthday, I’ve begun thinking more about how I want my life to look when I’m 25 and 30. While building with someone is a happy thought, I’ve been raised to learn how to fend for myself and build alone, so that’s what I see myself doing at 25. At 30 — who knows? Asees put it best: She said that while she’d like to get married, she isn’t sure when and if she sees it happening, “I’m so independent, I ride a bike, I do whatever I want, so I’ve been told nobody married women like me. I have been rejected by families for these reasons. If the world is made up of such people, then I might as well not get married.”

Perhaps this is the next obstacle brown society has to combat as a whole; why do we love seeing brown women in power but at the same time push them down for being too independent for marriage? Why is the running narrative one that puts down women for constructing self-sufficient lives in their twenties? Why do we think our women are incapable of life-long partnership after a certain age and level of independence?

My hope is to find something like my mother’s marriage, albeit at a later age. If I don’t, I know my parents will begin the arranged process for me by 30. My mother often says, “if you’re lucky enough, then things will just work out for you.” As a perpetual cynic, luck and I don’t have a very healthy relationship. Perhaps the only stroke of luck I really need is a change of discourse in this community, one that focuses less on the supposed unyielding independence of a woman and more on equalizing the balancing point in the tug of war between parties in a desi marriage.

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